In a decision which could put an end to months of on-off negotiations to establish a coalition government in Zimbabwe, a magistrate on Wednesday ruled that 16 human rights campaigners and opposition supporters must remain in custody pending a Supreme Court hearing of their case.
Prominent human rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko and 15 others are charged with recruiting people to undergo military training in Botswana with the aim of toppling President Robert Mugabe’s government. If convicted they could face the death penalty.
Last week a High Court judge ruled that the detainees be transferred to a hospital for medical treatment, but government lawyers are challenging his ruling and police have refused to obey the order to take the prisoners to hospital.
The police were supported on Wednesday when at a brief hearing in Harare magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe said “This matter remains to be decided in the Supreme Court and the accused cannot be released.” Two other activists facing lesser charges were freed.
The decision could have far-reaching political consequences because three weeks ago opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai gave an ultimatum that he would break off coalition talks with President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party if appropriate legal procedures were not followed by December 31.
Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change is deeply divided over the issue of whether to participate in the unity government agreed in September.
In recent days party opinion appears to have hardened against the deal, largely because numerous actions by the Mugabe government cast doubt on its sincerity.
These include the abductions of more than 30 opposition supporters and human rights campaigners, only some of whom have been brought to court, the charging of five MDC officials on counts of terrorism and sabotage, including the head of the party’s security department and a senior adviser to Mr Tsvangirai, the re-appointment of the unpopular governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono, and the repeated use of the security forces against opposition and civil rights groups.
If he sticks to his word, Mr Tsvangirai will abandon the talks, but he is under intense pressure from the South African government, which is desperate for a deal that would leave Mr Mugabe in effective control.
The opposition leader also has a long record of flip-flopping on key issues, issuing numerous threats and ultimatums and then backing away from them.
Were the opposition to withdraw from the talks, President Mugabe has said he would call fresh elections which neither party wants and the outcome of which would not be recognised internationally.
Mr Tsvangirai, who has been out of the country for the last 10 weeks is understood to be considering returning, now that the Zimbabwe authorities have issued him a new passport, but there are serious concerns that he could be arrested, or worse, should he fly back to Harare.
He is under pressure also to agree to the deal because of the rapidly worsening humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe with the World Health Organisation estimating that 1608 people have died from the cholera epidemic afflicting the country. The WHO warned this week that the situation could get worse in the weeks ahead.